Sunday, April 18, 2010

Arctic Ballet. Dance on Thin Ice.

After we posted the link for Angel of Uummannaq. The Arctic Ballet, we received many  e-mails from our readers with questions about it. People asked us about specific movements  – some translation is obviously required here -  and also about the meaning of the story behind the dance. That’s why I decided to return to this theme and explain in detail exactly what was going on. 

The idea to stage a little Arctic dance on the ever shifting and melting Greenlandic ice evolved from the regular activities of Uummannaq Music. As I watched our students leave the Music Room at Uummannaq Children’s Home after their daily rendezvous with Tchaikovsky and Bach, put on their polar bear pants and seal parkas, then run out and play in the snow, I could clearly see that they moved with remarkable levity, as though floating on air, almost weightless above the ground. They move very differently than European and American children when they play and run  in  parks and playgrounds on both sides of the Atlantic

Whether they were catching up with the dogsled or playing hide and seek in the icy rocks, Inuit children were not simply jumping and landing on the hard surface but rather flying in slow motion while gently touching the surface of the ground below.

 Since they were dressed in skins – polar bear pants and seal jackets - it looked quite surreal. Those who ever wore them know that they are heavy and restrict one's free movement - just like medieval  armor. 
Yet, even in these seemingly uncomfortable outfits, Eskimo children can run on thin ice without fear of falling through. For some reason, even the freshest and  therefore thinnest  ice  holds their weight up. If you’ve ever seen a video of a polar bear – the world’s largest land carnivore weighing 1,000 lb on average – running on the rocking surface of a frozen ocean, you would know what I am talking about. Inuit children are just like that. They glide above the sea ice.

It was only when I looked at their feet with precision that it occurred to me that the foot  is the root of the Eskimo walk on thin ice. Dressed in  a light and flat-bottomed  Kamik made out of polar bear skin, the foot slides above the surface almost without friction and makes the body seem to be weightless.  The kamik itself looks like a ballet pointe.

Like a pointe, a kamik also has no right or left, it can  be terribly uncomfortable when new and requires one to use the entire body for support, including the legs, back, and abdominal muscles.

The foot in a kamik is the root of the Eskimo walk and it is also the root of the dance. Except in Greenland , the dance like nipi, comes   not  out of leisure, but out of harsh necessity. Dancing on ice is not an entertainment nor a theatrical happening. Inuit people dance in order to stay alive. They dance on ice  to kill a seal, to catch a halibut, to drive the dogs, and to stay warm in a deadly frost. While the stage for their dance is a frozen ocean. 

 That’s how the idea of a dance on ice emerged.
Our young musicians from Uummannaq Children’s Home were strongly enthusiastic about it:  on sea ice they were totally in their element. Villagers were very supportive too. They  showed sincere pride for the dancers and immediately upgraded the humble name of the show to The Arctic Ballet. By the way, the first one in the history of Uummannaq.

 In the old Eskimo world, before European civilization arrived, words, music and dance were intimately connected.  They were connected like ice, land and sky are on a  foggy day when they abruptly lose their identities and boundaries as they become  blurred into one grand white entity.

A massive  fog suddenly descended on Uummannaq island when the Arctic Ballet was about to start. The milky clouds merged taking down at first the distant shores, then the frozen icebergs with cool(E)motion’s sculptures mounted on them,  and finally they hid  the top of the majestic heart-shaped Uummannaq Mountain.

It was the middle of the day, and it was getting darker and darker, the light was fading and the white fog mounded up until the entire mountain was gone.

The disappearance of Mt. Uummannaq was especially painful since it was to be our main stage decoration and it was chosen with great precision. We had no other, and did not wish a replacement.

As we stood  fully dressed for the dance, the white mist swallowed little boats in the Bay area and finally consumed the entire horizon.
As if somebody took an eraser on Photoshop CS and carefully deleted all the unnecessary things. All the boundaries had disappeared. We stood tête-à-tête with the great whiteness, which does not know either past or future, only the seemingly endless moment of the present.

Sky, Ice and Land were one thing now.It felt like the End of the World.

And this was the stage for our Arctic Ballet.
However, our cameraman, the French cinematographer Bertrand Lozay did not see it exactly this way – like the End of the World , or the end of our perfectly designed Pilersaarut (“plan” in Kalaallisut). Instead he saw it as an opportunity.

We made a quick decision to climb up the mountain and shoot from above.  You will see the dance the very same way as we saw it from the icy rocks on that foggy Sunday afternoon: as a white canvas waiting for a metaphor. Everything is this world was frozen in place except for the dancers. They were the only beings moving.

As the clip starts, you will see Ole Jorgen Hammeken, silently emerging from the Great Whiteness, the circle of the girls in the middle and a straight line of the boys standing still behind them.

The boys, of course, are the treacherous   tupilaqs:  they see everything and possess unusual powers but do not intervene until the moment arrives.

With the first sounds of the music the girls start moving in a circle imitating the flight of the Great Northern Diver –  a local  Arctic bird that  according Eskimoic beliefs also possesses great magical powers and grants  protection in case of imminent danger and even death.

Pipaluk Hammeken, a serene and humble beauty in white skins and grey kamiks, is “the beak” of the Great Northern Diver.  The girls behind her, on both sides, are the wings. The Great Northern Diver circles above the sea ice looking for its prey, flies straight ahead like an arrow and finally plunges  down into the sea as it catches it. The moment  of a kill is extremely important:  the excitement of catching a prey instantly transforms  into the serenity of the prayer to the Mother of the Sea. The girls kneel down on the ice and ask her  for humility and forgiveness while the boys – the unpredictable  tupilaqs –  agitate and echo them in their prayer.

The Great Northern Diver is another word for a duck, but in the Eskimo world it is also a word for hope. Hope is important in Greenland, because on the ice cap you can’t survive without it.

Sassuma Arnaa
Isumakkeerfigisigut Ilisimaassutsitsinnik…”

As the girls kneel down, they whisper these words along with our female and male voices, Pipaluk and Ole Jorgen Hammeken, the dog sled drivers.

“Sassuma Arnaa”  means “Mother of the Sea”.  “Mother of the Sea, please forgive us for our ignorance…”

In the olden days Eskimo hunters would walk far into the frozen sea and gather in a “dance hut” around the hole in the ice that resembled a seal’s breathing polynia.  Then they would circle around it and chant, get on their knees, peer into the polynia and ask the Mother of the Sea for forgiveness.

The Eskimo believed and still believe that  Sassuma Arnaa sometimes gets mad at humans for their stupid behavior and hides all the sea creatures from them under her sleeping platform at the bottom of the sea.

Sassuma Arnaa
Isumakkeerfigisigut Ilisimaassutsitsinnik…”

They don’t ask to forgive their sins.  There is no notion of a sin in the Eskimo culture. Only qanuallit – white people -  know and have sins. The Eskimo ask to forgive them for their ignorance…

As you watch the video, you will see other kind of beings entering and leaving the circle of dancing girls. Some are almost transparent, other have flesh on them but look more like shadows.

 To the Eskimo, a human being consists of body and soul which is invisible and eternal. Like the Great Northern Diver, the soul constantly travels above ice and water, in light and dark, meeting the invisible spirits that populate land, sea and air.

You can clearly see these spirits arising like mirages in our Arctic Ballet: there is a circle within the circle, the realm within the realm. You can see these spirits as they enter the reel of whirling girls, as they float in the air like drifting icebergs and as they leave as if they  never existed.  They appear and disappear. They come and go. Then they revisit, but never the same.

Some of these spirits are half-humans, other are half-animals. There was a time when the animal and human kingdoms were one. Wolves and snow foxes could turn into humans and vice versa. By the way, it’s still believed that polar bears were once a race of humans who became bears by dressing themselves in fur. But as soon as they enter their Igloo, polar bears take off the skins and become humans again…

In the last few days we received many e-mails complimenting us for choosing beautiful “costumes” for our children. I have written about it on several occasions, and would like to reiterate again that skins are not “costumes”. Skins are normal every day clothing in Greenland.  It’s not a fashion show, it’s a necessity. And it is still believed that we - humans - go inside the animals and become one with them each time we wear their skins.

Greenland is a land rich with metaphor, with adumbration. And the Arctic Ballet is a hymn to its complexity, vulnerability, sincerity and impermanence.

This hymn is both a dance and Nipi.

The flick of a whip, the squeak of the snow under the feet, the crackling sound of the breath instantly freezing in the air, the  dog sled drivers’ voices, their unsophisticated conversations with their dogs: “Taama!” (Go!) Ili Ili (Go right!), Iju Iju (Go left!), Ah-ta-ta (Go faster!), Aaach…(Stop!), the dogs’ howling and squealing, the melody of  the  prayer to Sassuma Arnaa, all of this  cacophony of sounds constitutes Nipi.

As you may have noticed when watching the video, they evolve from silence and then they return to silence one more time. Silence is a big part of Nipi.

It may be interesting to mention, that Uummannaq children danced on ice not only in the fog, but also in complete silence. Imagine transporting the piano on ice of the frozen ocean! All the soundtracks were added to the video later: on the other side of the world, nine time zones away from Uummannaq, Serge Morrell, our video and audio editor put all these layers of Nipi together in the midst of machine gun and grenade fire on the terrible morning last week that the bloody Kyrgyz revolution rocked Bishkek. From Uummannaq Island, we silently prayed for him and all other peaceful people in Bishkek, hoping that the Nipi of war, fire, hatred and destruction  would drown in the silence of peace as soon as possible.

Sassuma Arnaa
Isumakkeerfigisigut Ilisimaassutsitsinnik…

Mother of the Sea, please forgive us for our ignorance…

Photo: @Tiina Itkonen, @Bertrand Lozay, @Galya Morrell


  1. It's very great experience in frozen environment.
    Polar bear pants and seal jackets look so cool.
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  2. Hello! Beautiful people in beautiful clothing!! I´ve nominated your blog for the Liebster Award. To find out more about it, have a look at With greetings from Ittoqqortoormiit, Eastgreenland - Ruth